It's not hard to recall the days when home offices with PCs were somewhat of a novelty. Now, it's not atypical for home offices to boast multiple computers, as well as fax machines, printers, copiers and modems. Like businesses in corporate towers, the home office has evolved into something of a high-tech haven. But its metamorphosis has yet to be completed. The next step in its evolution: home networking.
With many home offices now buzzing with PCs and peripherals, the most obvious progression is to start connecting them. One of the best reasons for homebased businesses to consider home networking? It's an affordable, easy way to share computer files and peripherals with an employee who needs access to the printer for a marketing brochure, or your child who's working on a book report. Home networking also allows you shared Internet access, eliminating the burdensome costs involved with purchasing additional phone lines, modems and Internet accounts.
Networking products are rapidly moving out of traditional business environments and into the home. Myriad home networking solutions already exist--with more on the way. How do you choose among all the options? The best products offer easy administration, require little or no change to your home's existing wiring and deliver the best performance for the price.
You might say Nancy and Rick Cummins are at the forefront of the home networking movement. Nancy, 43, runs a secretarial service and direct-mail business, Confidential Business Services, from home. Rick, 41, is the owner of a Cincinnati-based ISP, and frequently brings work home. In 1994, the couple installed a peer-to-peer network in their Florence, Kentucky, home office so they could share files between their two PCs and access any one of their three printers.
"We networked our home office because if more than one person wanted to work on a file at the same time, it got really complicated," explains Nancy. "We also had a huge need for sharing the printers."
While few home offices have them today, networking solutions have been available for years. There are two basic types of networks: peer-to-peer and client/server. A peer-to-peer network is a system in which at least two computers are connected for sharing files or peripherals. In this type of network, no central computer--or server--is in control, although a central "hub" is recommended to allow the interconnected PCs to communicate with each other in an orderly manner. If you want to share large files and databases, a client/server solution is usually best--although it's a highly unlikely solution for home offices. In this scenario, a server, a high-speed workstation or PC with a lot of processing power and storage capability, stores all shared applications and files. A client/server solution also has a network "hub" that acts as a traffic controller.
In either case, each computer in the network must have a network interface card (NIC), which allows the device to communicate with other machines. In general, NICs use a special set of rules (protocols) called an Ethernet that carries data at a rate of 10 Mbps (megabits per second). Faster NICs that use protocols called Fast Ethernet are also available. They can carry data at rates of 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps. Finally, cabling is required to connect the devices. The most common cabling, 10BASE-T, is widely used because it's relatively inexpensive and easy to maintain.
The obvious downside to this process is the hassle of installing new wiring. Typically, installing a network involves routing unsightly cables around your home, drilling holes in the walls--even knocking down walls, if necessary. For this solution to work, you must often be willing to make a substantive investment in modifying your home's wiring. For many, the process of installing NICs and configuring computers can be technically intimidating as well.
To simplify the process, manufacturers have released products that are designed for easy installation and use. Many now offer complete home networking kits that come with everything you need. For instance, the OfficeConnect four-port Networking Kit ($119) from 3Com (www.3com.com/home) has everything you need to connect two PCs and a printer. The kit includes two EtherLink III ISA NICs (10 Mbps), one OfficeConnect four-port hub and two 25-foot unversal twisted pair cables. The kit also includes step-by-step installation instructions, as well as Installation Wizard software to guide you through the process, confirm successful installation and aid in troubleshooting.
NETGEAR (netgear.baynetworks.com) offers both 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps networking starter kits ($112 and $179, respectively). Each kit includes two NICs, two 25-foot cables, one four-port hub and network driver software. If you need to network more than two PCs, additional NICs and cables are required.
Another, perhaps more appealing, networking option is to use the existing wires in your house. In the coming months, two solutions should become more widely available: power-line networks and phone-line networks.
The first method uses the power lines, or AC wiring, that are already in your home to transfer data. Although this solution has actually been around for years, it never caught on due to sluggish transmission speeds, high costs and poor functionality. Current power-line networking technology transfers data at less than 1 Mbps, and initial products have offered unreliable performance due to inherently noisy power lines. However, with companies like Intelogis (www.intelogis.com) currently looking into developing products that overcome these barriers, new electrical-line networking solutions should be heading your way soon.
The main advantage to establishing a power-line network is that electrical outlets probably already exist in every room of your house. Because this solution requires each PC to be connected to an AC adapter in the electrical outlet, the outlets' widespread availability in homes makes power-line networking a very attractive solution.
Phone-line networking, on the other hand, involves building a network by using the copper wiring used by phones. On the plus side, this solution eliminates the need for extra wiring--and initial products are expected to offer acceptable speed and performance levels. Phone-line networking is expected to be "the first home networking technology deployed on a large scale," says Dan Sweeney, business unit manager for Intel's Home Networking Operation.
To spur the growth of this type of network, computer companies have formed an association called the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (Home PNA) to work on technical standards. Key players include Intel, IBM, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Tut Systems.
Phone-line networks require each computer to be modified with a device that plugs into a phone jack, which allows it to communicate with other computers in the house that are similarly equipped. According to Home PNA specifications, data would then be carried over phone lines at 7.5 MHz. Because this hits a higher frequency range than voice transmissions, the data is transmitted on the wiring above Plain Old Telephone Signals (POTS). Therefore, one person can conduct a phone call while another e-mails a file over the same phone line. Initial products share data at 1 Mbps, with 10 Mbps solutions expected by year-end.
Tut Systems (www.tutsys.com) has released a line of HomeRun products that use telephone wires to network. Plug the HomeRun device into a phone jack, and it allows a PC or related device to share a 1 Mbps Ethernet-compatible network with other devices. It supports up to 25 PCs and peripherals, and connects equipment within a 500-foot range. The HomeRun product line also includes the HR1000T Home-Run Ethernet Adapter and the HR1000PCI NIC for desktop PCs.
By the end of this month, Intel plans to release its first phone-line network product, the 21145 Phoneline/Ethernet LAN controller (which employs Tut's HomeRun technology). This 1 Mbps solution offers traditional file and peripheral sharing, as well as shared Internet access. It also contains a 10 Mbps upgrade path to take advantage of faster cable modems and xDSL technologies expected in the future.
One real downside to phone-line networking: You're limited to the areas in your home with existing phone jacks. Also, because this solution is based on phone-line technology, it's not appropriate for laptop users who want to work untethered from anywhere in the house.
Look Ma, No Wires!
In 1996, Nancy and Rick Cummins purchased a laptop computer primarily so Rick could have a more portable solution for bringing work home. This gave the couple the chance to try out yet another option for home networking: wireless. Wireless networking typically links computers and related equipment through high-frequency radio waves. Its major advantage? It isn't dependent on the location of phone jacks and electrical outlets, so it allows you to access the network (with a laptop) from almost anywhere in your home.
The Symphony cordless home- and small-office network from Proxim (www.proxim.com/symphony) gave the Cumminses the flexibility they desired. Says Nancy, "I've been able to access invoices and databases [on the desktop computer] with my laptop while watching my children swim in the pool outside. The versatility has been a real benefit."
Radio frequency (RF) solutions like these use an RF band (2.4 GHz) to transmit data. Through a process called frequency hopping, the radio transmission moves fairly quickly across differing frequencies while the data is being transmitted, offering a very secure solution. RF networking also delivers impressive speeds: Symphony, for instance, supports file and printer sharing, as well as shared Internet access, on a cordless network at 1.6 Mbps.
For untethered networking of desktop and laptop computers, the Symphony wireless network requires desktop computers to have an ISA card ($149); notebooks require a PC card ($199). For Internet access, the Symphony product line offers two solutions--you can either plug the Symphony cordless modem ($299) into an existing phone line for 56 Kbps Internet access, or use an ISA card coupled with free Symphony Conductor modem-sharing software to utilize the existing modem in your PC or laptop.
Wireless networking solutions like these offer very few limitations. With a wireless connection between your laptop and desktop computers, you're free to surf the Web, check e-mail and access files from virtually anywhere in your house. Keep in mind, however, that you'll pay for this convenience--wireless solutions are slightly more expensive than other home networking options.
All Together Now
Inevitably, where we're all heading with this is toward the fully wired home. Many envision this home of the not-too-distant future as using some kind of high-speed wiring to centralize all entertainment, phone, utilities and PC networking in a single location.
IBM recently offered a glimpse of what may be to come. It announced the availability of Home Director, a new home networking solution that promises to deliver a home network controlled from a PC or TV screen, which will integrate the primary functions of most household systems, including security, lighting, heating and network-enabled PCs and peripherals. The IBM Home Director system (pricing varies) utilizes what's called the Home Network Controller to manage your home network, and the IBM Home Network Connection Center to centralize and facilitate communication between the various components. Although it's primarily targeted at the new home construction market, IBM says its Home Director can be retrofitted into most existing homes.
Clearly, we're on the cusp of something revolutionary, not only for home offices but for homeowners in general. And homebased businesses could be the first to put new home networking technologies to the test. That means fair amounts of patience, education and flexibility are required to best utilize these new home networking solutions. That also means home offices, as usual, are at the forefront of new business and technology trends--and they're expected to maintain their position well ahead of the pack.
FYI For more information on home networking, check out these sources on the Web:
Intel's white paper, Emerging Trends in Home Computing (www.intel.com/home/network), offers insight into the benefits of home networking, current barriers and a look at tomorrow's wired home.
Visit http://www.3Com.com/home for more information on existing home networking options, 3Com products and more.
Confidential Business Services, 10109 Tiburon Dr., Florence KY 41402, (606) 371-3177.